Bryce Miller: Visiting Yankees built in part by Damon Oppenheimer and Kevin Reese, two San Diegans who grew up with Padres (2024)

The hard wiring of the New York Yankees scouting and player development machine is built with Padres-inspired parts. Tony Gwynn, Randy Jones, the Steve Garvey home run, they’re all baked into the baseball motor of the bombers from the Big Apple.

The present-day worlds of Damon Oppenheimer and Kevin Reese revolve around the storied pinstripes.

The past? That orbit belonged to the Padres.

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“Living so close to Jack Murphy Stadium, I went to Padres games left and right growing up,” Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ scouting director, said ahead of a three-game series between the clubs that begins Friday at Petco Park.

“I was a huge baseball fan. I worked a couple years there selling peanuts and stuff like that. I remember Randy Jones pitching was the greatest. I could be home by almost 9.”

Oppenheimer had little choice in the matter. His mother, Priscilla, was the longtime director of minor-league operations for the Padres.

Reese, the Yankees’ vice president of player development, is anchored by similar roots. He played at Mission Bay High School and the University of San Diego.

“My first memory was my parents standing in line for tickets in 1984,” he said. “I was drafted by the Padres. My youngest son is named Gwynn, after Tony.”

Meandering baseball paths that began in San Diego ended up in Tampa, the sun-splashed nerve center of the Yankees’ player-acquiring, player-building operation.

Oppenheimer started at Hoover High School, where he played catcher. In Oppenheimer’s junior season of 1980, Hoover teammate Garry Harris was drafted No. 2 overall — right after Darryl Strawberry.

The baseball was good. The love affair, sparked.

“We had a lot of guys who went on to college,” Oppenheimer said this week, while watching players at the ACC Tournament. “It was great baseball. My senior year, I had some crazy batting average like .576 or something.”

Reese, who grew up in Tierrasanta, eventfully transferred to Mission Bay. Baseball became the same sort of addiction.

“Baseball became a huge part of my life,” Reese said. “I decided to go to Mission Bay. Coach (Dennis) Pugh was a legend. I figured out that if I wanted to play in college, that seemed like the best move.

“It was great. I was 21-0 as a pitcher, but looking back at it now, we were 21-0 because we had a really good team and scored a lot of runs.”

After converting to an outfielder at USD, Reese was drafted in the 27th round by the Padres — a mere 798 picks after the Rangers took No. 1 overall pick Adrian Gonzalez out of Eastlake High School.

One day, Reese was working out with Padres veterans Phil Nevin, Trevor Hoffman, Gwynn and others at Qualcomm Stadium.

“Nevin came out and said, ‘Dude, you got traded,’ ” Reese said. “I thought they were playing a prank since I was the only minor-leaguer there. But it was true. I packed up and was off to the Yankees.”

Oppenheimer landed as a player at Southwestern College in Chula Vista. He signed with the Brewers, but injuries made the stab at pro baseball short-lived.

When the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau offered him a job, connections formed through his mother’s time with the Padres led to a scouting gig with them.

Five or six years later, the Yankees came calling.

The magnifying glass pointed toward players and managers in New York extends beyond the dugout.

“Yeah, it feel like it constantly,” Oppenheimer said of the pressure. “You feel like you need to produce. And that’s the way it should be. With the Yankees, you learn to deal with expectations that (late owner) George Steinbrenner put on.

“You need to win. At everything.”

Thoroughness and hustle became the norm.

“I remember scouting a game in Charleston, S.C., at 9 in the morning,” Oppenheimer said. “I watched the guy pitch, hopped on a plane that left at 11:30 for Las Vegas to watch (Aaron) Judge play in the afternoon. Then I was on a plane to see a game later that day in Northern California.”

Bryce Miller: Visiting Yankees built in part by Damon Oppenheimer and Kevin Reese, two San Diegans who grew up with Padres (2)

Kevin Reese played at USD following a stellar career at Mission Bay High School.

(UT File)

Reese soon related.

“Around the trade deadline, I flew to Dallas to see a player,” said Reese, who was hired into the Yankees by another San Diegan, Billy Eppler. “By the time I landed, the guy was off the board. So they said, ‘Why don’t you fly to Kansas City to see another guy?’

“There’s always pressure, but I love it. It keeps you in a good mindset. It’s like, ‘What am I doing today to help keep us at the top?’ That pressure is there, but it’s also backed with a lot of support. That’s what makes it great to work here.”

All the sleeve-rolling work in the world cannot always overcome to the fickle fingers of talent-gathering fate.

Take 2009, for example.

The Yankees thought they were poised for a steal after evaluating a New Jersey kid named Mike Trout. As the first round rolled along, Trout was still there.

Then, four picks in front of them, the Angels pulled the trigger.

Trout has gone on to become a three-time MVP in the American League. The Yankees ended up with outfielder Slade Heathcott, who played 17 games for the big club in 2015.

“It comes up all the time, how things could have been different,” Oppenheimer said. “We really thought we had a good shot to get Trout there. The Angels kind of picked our pocket.”

Sometimes, short-term pain became long-term gain.

The Yankees drafted pitcher Gerrit Cole out of Orange Lutheran High School in 2008, but he decided to attend UCLA instead and eventually ended up with Pirates. Cole circled back to the Yankees in 2020 and is the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.

“It doesn’t do any good to be mad,” Oppenheimer said. “Some would be mad and make a fool of themselves. We handled it professionally. My relationship with Cole has been great the whole time. I kept talking to him in college.

“The idea that we treated the situation right helped us.”

For Reese, a major high followed a challenging low.

The Yankees were rare sellers in 2016, dealing away prized left hander Andrew Miller and fireballer Aroldis Chapman. They landed Gleyber Torres in the latter deal and, with a few other moves, found themselves in the ALCS the next season.

“It was a quick turnaround, so that made it special,” Reese said. “It felt good to help put us in that position.”

Randy Jones quick? That’s something San Diego baseball guys can appreciate.

Bryce Miller: Visiting Yankees built in part by Damon Oppenheimer and Kevin Reese, two San Diegans who grew up with Padres (2024)
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